A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  Table of Contents

  About the Author

  Title Page

  Copyright Page









  R. K. Narayan was born in Madras, South India, in 1906, and educated there and at Maharaja’s College in Mysore. His first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), and its successor, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), are both set in the enchanting fictional territory of Malgudi. Other ‘Malgudi’novels are The Dark Room (1938), The English Teacher (1945), Mr Sampath (1949), The Financial Expert (1952), Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), The Vendor of Sweets (1967), The Painter of Signs (1977), A Tiger for Malgudi (1983) and Talkative Man (1986). His novel The Guide (1958) won him the National Prize of the Indian Literary Academy, his country’s highest literary honour. As well as five collections of short stories, A Horse and Two Goats, An Astrologer’s Day, Lawley Road, Malgudi Days and Under the Banyan Tree, he has published two travel books, My Dateless Diary and The Emerald Route; four volumes of essays, Next Saturday, Reluctant Guru, A Story-teller’s World and A Writer’s Nightmare; the retold legends, Gods, Demons and Others, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata; a volume or memoirs, My Days; and, most recently, a collection of three novellas, The Grandmother’s Tale. In 1980 he was awarded the A. C. Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature and in 1982 he was made an Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Many of his books are published by Penguin.


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1983

  Published in Great Britain by William Heinemann Ltd 1983

  Published in Penguin Books 1984

  Copyright© R. K. Narayan, 1982, 1983

  All rights reserved

  A selection from this book appeared originally

  in The Missouri Review, and the Introduction

  appeared in the Vassar Quarterly.

  eISBN : 978-0-140-18545-4


  To Charles Pick, who, to my great joy, brought me to the windmill again


  During the Kumbh Mela festival, which recurs every twelve years at the confluence of the three rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati in Allahabad, a vast crowd gathers for a holy bath in the rivers. Amidst that ocean of humanity also arrives a hermit with his companion, a tiger. He does not hold the animal on a leash since he claims they were brothers in previous lives. The tiger freely moves about without hurting or scaring anyone.

  Such a combination seemed incredible when I read reports of it and saw the photographs. But as I got used to the idea, I began to speculate on its possibilities for a novel. Also I came across a few other instances of enduring friendship between tigers and human beings. This theme was on my mind in a general way, but it narrowed down to a specific issue about a year ago, when I came upon a bookmark, a four-inch-long strip of cardboard with the picture of a young tiger pleading, ‘I’d love to get into a good book.’ That sounded like a hint from the Muses (if they care for novelists too). I said to the young tiger, ‘Surely you will get into my book, but the goodness of the book itself I can’t guarantee.’

  It also occurred to me that with a few exceptions here and there, humans have monopolized the attention of fiction writers. Man in his smugness never imagines for a moment that other creatures may also possess ego, values, outlook, and the ability to communicate, though they may be incapable of audible speech. Man assumes he is all-important, that all else in creation exists only for his sport, amusement, comfort, or nourishment. Valmiki, the greatest of poets, who composed the Ramayana, cried out when he noticed the agony of a bird whose mate was shot down by a hunter, ‘Man, the destroyer, who’ll not let innocent creatures mate in peace ...’I wished to examine what the result would be if I made a tiger the central character in a novel.

  ‘Why tiger? Why not a mouse?’asked a smart journalist who had come to interview me, when I mentioned the subject of my novel. I could only reply, ‘So that the chief character may not be trampled upon or lost sight of in a hole.’

  My story begins with an aged tiger lying in its cage ruminating on its past, beginning with its cubhood and wild days in the jungle, and later life in captivity as a circus star. It attains freedom when it breaks loose from a film-shooting camp and wanders into the town. The terror-stricken public attempts to get it shot but an ascetic who appears on the scene protects and adopts it as a companion.

  ‘Who is he? Where is he from?’are naturally the questions that occur to everyone. But whenever he is asked ‘Who are you?’he just says, ‘What I am trying to find out.’This sounds like a mere metaphysical quibble, but it is a plain, literal answer to the question. When one is seized with a passion to understand one’s self, one has to leave behind all normal life and habitual modes of thought. One becomes an ascetic; the terms sannyasi, sadhu, yogi, or swamiji indicate more or less the same state.

  A sannyasi is one who renounces everything and undergoes a complete change of personality. Why one would become a sannyasi is not easily answered - a personal tragedy or frustration, a deeply compelling philosophy of life, or a flash of illumination may drive one to seek a change. Whatever the cause, when one becomes a sannyasi, one obliterates one’s past. A sannyasi is to be taken as he is at the moment. You can never ask a sannyasi about his earlier life. He will never refer to it. It would be a crass, inconsiderate act even to ask a sannyasi his name. He assumes a new name, bearing no mark of his ancestry or class, but indicative of some general beatitude. He has freed himself from all possessions and human ties. Among certain sects, the man will even perform his own funeral ritualistically before becoming a sannyasi. A sannyasi is a wanderer living on alms, never rooted to any place except when he seeks the seclusion of a cave or forest at some stage for prolonged meditation.

  Apart from the genuine types, there are also fakes who adopt this life for its sheer vagrancy, or to exploit the public in the garb of holy men. During certain yogic practices, eight kinds of supernatural powers may be roused; one could become invisible, levitate, transmute metals, travel in space, control animals and men, live on air, and so on and so forth. But such magical powers are considered to be stages in one’s evolution, incidental powers acquired on the way, to be ignored and not exercised for profit or self-promotion, except to mitigate pain or suffering in others.

  Now, in my story the ‘Tiger Hermit’employs his powers to save the tiger and transform it inwardly - working on the basis that, deep within, the core of personality is the same in spite of differing appearances and categories, and with the right approach you could expect the same response from a tiger as from any normal human being.

  R. K. N.

  October 1982.

  I have no idea of the extent of this zoo. I know only my corner and whatever passes before me. On the day I was wheeled in, I only noticed two gates opening to admit me. When I stood up I caught a glimpse of some cages ahead and also heard the voice of a lion. The man
who had transferred me from the forest stepped out of his jeep and said, after a glance in my direction, ‘He is all right. Now run up and see if the end cage is ready. This animal is used to human company and a lot of free movement. We must keep him where people will be passing. The open-air enclosure must also be available to him, when the wild ones are not let out. See to it.’

  They have shown me special consideration, by the grace of my Master, whom I may not see again. All the same, lying here on the cool floor, I madly hope that my Master might suddenly appear out of a crowd, open the door of my cage, and command, ‘Come out, let us go.’Such is my dream. I keep scrutinizing faces, but all faces look dull and monotonous, none radiant like my Master’s. Men, women, and children peer through the bars, and sometimes cry aloud, ‘Ah, see this tiger. What a ferocious beast!’and make crude noises to rouse me, fling a stone if the keeper is not looking, and move on to appreciate similarly the occupant of the next cage. You are not likely to understand that I am different from the tiger next door, that I possess a soul within this forbidding exterior. I can think, analyse, judge, remember and do everything that you can do, perhaps with greater subtlety and sense. I lack only the faculty of speech.

  But if you could read my thoughts, you would be welcome to come in and listen to the story of my life. At least, you could slip your arm through the bars and touch me and I will hold out my forepaw to greet you, after retracting my claws, of course. You are carried away by appearances - my claws and fangs and the glowing eyes frighten you no doubt. I don’t blame you. I don’t know why God has chosen to give us this fierce make-up, the same God who has created the parrot, the peacock, and the deer, which inspire poets and painters. I would not blame you for keeping your distance - I myself shuddered at my own reflection on the still surface of a pond while crouching for a drink of water, not when I was really a wild beast, but after I came under the influence of my Master and learnt to question, ‘Who am I?’Don’t laugh within yourself to hear me speak thus. I’ll tell you about my Master presently.

  I recollect my early days as a cave-dweller and jungle beast (however much my Master might have disliked the term) with a mixture of pleasure and shame. At the far end of Mempi range, which trails off into the plains, I lived in my cave on the edge of a little rivulet, which swelled and roared along when it rained in the hills but was fordable in dry season, with the jungle stretching away on the other side. I remember my cubhood when I frolicked on the sandy bank and in the cool stream, protected and fed by a mother. I had no doubt whatever that she would live for ever to look after me: a natural delusion which afflicts all creatures, including human beings. However, she just vanished from my world one evening. I was seized with panic and hid myself in the cave. When I ventured out, I was chased, knocked down and hurt by bigger animals and menaced by lesser ones. I starved except when I could catch miserable creatures such as rabbits, foxcubs and squirrels, and survived somehow. Not only survived, but in course of time considered myself the Supreme Lord of the Jungle, afraid of no one, striking terror in others. It was, naturally, a time of utter wildness, violence, and unthinking cruelty inflicted on weaker creatures. Everyone I encountered proved weaker and submissive, but that submissiveness did not count - I delivered the fatal blow in any case when I wished and strode about as the King of the Forest. By the way, who crowned the lion King of the Forest? Probably a fable writer, carried away by the pompous mane and beard, I suppose! A more slothful creature was never created. All his energy is conserved for hunting food, and once that is accomplished he lies down for days on end, so reluctant to move a muscle that he could be used by any other jungle creature as a mattress; it would make no difference to him if birds nested in his beard and laid eggs. As for his supreme strength I had a chance to test it in the circus ring once, when we were let out to fight and he fled into a waiting cage thanking the Creator for the damage of only one ear, which came off when I tried to comb his royal mane. I got a pat on my back from the ringmaster himself.

  Every creature in the jungle trembled when it sensed my approach. ‘Let them tremble and understand who is the Master, Lord of this world,’I thought with pride. When I strode out from the cave, the scent went ahead, and except monkeys and birds on trees all other creatures shrank out of sight. While I prowled through, half-sunk in jungle grass, I expected the deferential withdrawal from my path of other creatures. We the denizens of the jungle can communicate, without words, exactly as human beings do - we are capable of expressing to each other sympathy, warning, abuse, irony, insult, love and hatred exactly in the manner of human beings, but only when necessary, unlike human beings who talk all their waking hours, and even in sleep. When I passed by, rabbits scurried off, and if a jackal happened to be in my path, he put his ears back, lowered his tail, rolled his eyes in humility, and cried softly: ‘Here comes our Lord and Master. Keep his path clear ...’ Such attention pleased me, and seemed to add to my stature. Occasionally I came across a recalcitrant member of our society who probably thought highly of himself and I always noted, through a corner of my eye, how he pretended not to have seen me, looking the other way or asleep behind a thorny bush out of my reach. I made a mental note of such lapses of courtesy and never failed to punish him when a chance occurred. It might not be more than a scratch or a bite while passing him the next time, but that would take days to heal, and he would lose an eye or a tooth or earn a cut on his lips making it impossible for him to eat his food, all of which I counted as a trophy. Whenever I saw the creature again, you may be sure he never displayed any arrogance. Among our jungle community, we had an understanding, which was an acknowledgement of my superiority, unquestioned, undisputed. My Master, when I mentioned it, explained that it was also true of human beings in various degrees and versions.

  While all living creatures avoided me, there was one which I took great care to avoid - the porcupine, after an early experience. Out of a sort of recklessness I once tried to toss him about, and received such a stab of quills over my nose, jaws, and paws that I retreated to my cave and collapsed. I lay there starving for several days; I expected I would soon be dead. A long-tailed, black-faced langur, perched at a safe distance on the branch of a fig tree, munching fruits as the monkey tribe always do, simpered, leered, and said, ‘Served you right. No one in his right mind would ever go near a porcupine. Ignorant fool. Should you run after every kind of flesh indiscriminately? You think no end of your prowess!’I looked up and growled, wishing I could reach him. (He then went out and spread the news far and wide, making it the joke of the season in the jungle.) ‘Shut up,’I cried, and the long-tailed one said, ‘Yes, after I have said this, you despot, now listen carefully. If you can move yourself across the stream, not far off there is a yellow shrub with bristles. Brush against it; milk from its leaves will loosen the quills and heal your sores. You see that hollow over there, go, drop yourself in it, sink down in it, roll in it; it is full of those plants ...’

  Forgive me, if you find me running into the past. Whenever I recollect my forest life, I am likely to lose all restraint. I have often felt guilty at reminiscing, but my Master, who reads my mind, has said that there is nothing wrong in it, and advises me not to curb it - it being also a part of my own life, indispensable and unshakable although I have come a long way from it...

  I only worried about monkeys - they lived at a height and moved and ran about as they pleased, and thought they were above the normal rules and laws of the jungle, a mischievous tribe. I was aware of how they hopped from place to place, hiding amidst foliage, bearing malicious rumours and trying to damage my authority. Their allies were birds which lived at a height and enjoyed greater facility than monkeys in that they could fly away at my approach. How I longed sometimes to be able to climb or fly even a short distance. Then I would have eliminated this whole contemptible clan; I particularly wished to get at the owl, the wise one with his round eyes always looking down his hook nose, a self-appointed adviser to all those despicable creatures who secretly wished
my downfall. (I’m only expressing my mentality in those days in the idiom of those times.) Every time I passed below a tree, I would hear a cynical cackle and hoot and if I looked up I’d see the loving couple, the owl and her mate. One would say to the other, ‘When the King passes, what should one do?’There would be some answer to that.

  ‘If you don’t?’

  ‘Then he will nip off your head.’

  ‘Yes - only if he could carry his mighty bulk up a tree trunk...’

  The crow was particularly treacherous, always following my movements and creating enough din to reveal where I had the kill, making it impossible for me to eat in peace, sneaking up to peck at my food and retreating when I turned, again and again. Worse than the crow were kites, vultures, eagles and such, which circled loftily in the high heaven, but to no greater purpose than to spot out carrion, glide down and clean it up to the bone. Mean creatures, ever on the watch for someone else’s kill.

  Another creature that I had my eyes on was the leopard. I don’t know how many members of that odious family existed in my forest - they didn’t seem to breed or multiply too openly. The leopard was so secretive that you never noticed more than one at a time and hardly ever a family. It has always been a mystery. When I passed by he would climb a tree pointedly to emphasize the fact that he was higher than myself. I tried to ignore this creature, since he possessed great agility and could get beyond anyone’s reach, but he was mean, and always made it clear that he was there and didn’t care for me. He made all kinds of noises while I passed, and purred and growled and sneered. When he was with his mate it was worse. They made audible remarks most insulting to a tiger, and talked among themselves about the superiority of spots over stripes.

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